Has Technology Stolen Our Vacations?

Tech-VacationI have been working in the investment business in some shape or fashion for more than 30 years, and a lot has changed since those early days.  Early in my career in Boston, investment management was a sleepy business.  A nine-to-five job, that allowed for plenty of downtime.  Portfolio Managers would rebalance the model and not worry if it took a few days to execute in the funds and other portfolios.  After all, the rebalancing wasn’t done electronically, and reporting was done only at quarter end.  When the summer rolled around, the office closed up early on Friday (while the market was still open) to allow the executives time to get to their cape house or the ferry to Nantucket.  You see, everyone needed to be at their destination in time for cocktails. It was a time when weekends were your own and vacation meant see you in two weeks and don’t bother me!

Today, taking a vacation can be a stressful event for many employees, being away from the office is both desired and dreaded.  Sure employees talk a good game, “I am off for a week, no work all play!” or “I am not going to think about work for the next 10 days!” Don’t believe it!  Americans are notorious for not taking all their vacation time and when they do, they tend to check in on email or by phone.  Employers will insist that they want their employees to separate, rest and relax, so why are we compelled to work on our vacation instead of tuning out, relaxing, and recharging as we should?

This is a topic that interests me, as I am a notorious offender.  I informally queried several of my friends and colleagues on whether when they took vacation, did they feel compelled to check in or do work remotely? To a man (or woman), they all said yes.  They told me that the only time that work was not a part of the vacation schedule, was if the vacation was to an exotic or remote destination that just didn’t allow for access to email.  This is not a phenomena of the investment business, as my friends come from all walks of life: teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, accountants, and many other vocations.  So what compels people to work on vacation?  Here are a few of the reasons I got, “It is easier to spend an hour a day on work than to go back to a mess.”  “I am the only one who can do certain things.” “I feel it supports the team if they have access to me while I am away.” “My clients don’t care if I am on vacation when they need me, they need me!”  “My boss is depending on me.”  It is hard to argue these points when we work in a world where we may receive hundreds of emails a day, or wear many hats to fill the gaps of staffing needs, or in some cases, feel vulnerable in our jobs.

Remembering back to my early career, a story sticks with me that shows how much work connectivity has changed over the years. One summer, we had an emergency question about one of the mutual funds our company managed and the manager was at his vacation home on Nantucket. We needed an answer, so we had to make the dreaded call (via landline, of course). We reached the manager’s wife who noted he was out on the boat; now we were in trouble, we needed to speak to the manager.  His wife went down to the shore, blew the air horn a couple of times, waved her arms and then yelled.  Thirty minutes later the manager called us back.   Even if you wanted to work on vacation, it wasn’t easy. 

I don’t want to dismiss other people’s reasons, but, I am convinced the reason we work on our vacations is because we can!  We want to know what’s going on, we feel important staying in touch, and as technology has changed it has gotten easier and easier…

It started with the cell phone and the laptop computer, then access to the internet, then the blackberry, and now the smartphone.  In the past, “working on vacation” meant once every day or so you dialed in to your email on a data line, or stopped in to the business center, or local library.  You would pick up email, respond to some, and maybe make some phone calls.  Now we pick up and respond to emails while we are in the car, at a restaurant, in the shopping center or at the beach.  If someone calls you, you answer the call.

Technology has put the workplace in our pocket.  It is pretty hard to ignore, and it takes us away from our family--the very people we chose to spend time with.  Does that matter? Probably not when our families are buried in their Apps or Snapchat or Instagram, or roaming the streets trying to capture Pokemon! And I guess this speaks to the underlying question of whether it’s us or the workplace that has changed. It seems that 24/7 connectivity has become enmeshed in our culture, well beyond the business world.

It is the beginning of August, six more weeks for summer vacations.  Why don’t we put down the Smartphones, step away from our iPads and just disconnect? That may be dramatic, but when I go away this September, I swear I am only going to pick up email while having my coffee each morning--and maybe when we return from the beach. And perhaps while the cocktails are being mixed……

Forget it I am just like the rest, another information-hungry pseudo-vacationer!